Continued from yesterday’s post.
Dhiyampati and Ellen have reached the center of the machine. Dhiyampati stands there, still, listening to the afterlife engine’s hum.
“It is like the music of the spheres,” he says.
Ellen closes her eyes.
“It’s not happy, though,” she says.
Dhiyampati grins over at her.
“Well, it’s not,” she protests. “It’s agitated.”
“Yes,” he agrees. He puts his hand on his chin. “So there is the question. Why would a man who has agreed to embark on the exploration of Pluto travel to Pluto in one case, and to parts unknown in another?”
Dhiyampati calls forth his elohite. It bursts into being with a sound that resonates with the entirety of the machine.
“Is the engine working?” he asks.
The elohite stares down at him. Then she laughs.
“The explorers have gone,” Dhiyampati asks, “. . . where they have chosen to go?”
“That is an ambiguous question,” says the elohite. “Where have they chosen to go?”
“The research station on Pluto?”
The elohite looks puzzled. “Why would an explorer want to go there?”
Dhiyampati looks up. He frowns.
But elohim do not answer the same question twice; and it is gone as swiftly as it came.
Dhiyampati and Ellen walk back to the meeting room. Dhiyampati’s frown persists.
“It isn’t the same,” says Ellen.
Ellen is thinking. “It isn’t the same,” she says. “To go somewhere for the first time. Even the second. And later. There’s something special about the first time you see the inside of an afterlife engine. And can you imagine how wondrous it would be to be the first person to have met an elohite, or piloted a plane? But now, these things are ordinary. With each experience, that experience grows less.”
Dhiyampati’s brow clears. Then it furrows.
“Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”
“I can’t call up elohim to tell me obvious things,” says Ellen. “So I don’t see them. Like, for instance, sometimes I think I want pizza. But I really need good food for energy. If I could summon up an elohite, she’d tell me, ‘Don’t get pizza.'”
“Only the first time,” Dhiyampati murmurs, wryly.
“But instead, I summon up Domino’s.”
“Well,” says Dhiyampati. “Then it seems the matter is resolved. Your missing people are off on a Pluto that they can explore for the first time. They are not in contact because—”
Here he hesitates.
“I suppose,” he says, “that there are information issues. I mean, should they contact you, then it becomes impossible that they are the first to explore Pluto.”
“But where are they?” Ellen asks.
Dhiyampati laughs. “Death is a great adventure,” he says. “But there are no good maps.”
They have reached the meeting room. Mr. Cullens spins around in his chair. He says, “I’m thinking Satanic monkeys.”
Dhiyampati stares at him.
Mr. Cullens frowns. He’d been hoping to have correctly anticipated the solution. Now he is forced to stammer out his ideas only partly formed. “I mean,” he says, “we know that elohim are reliable. We can prove that mathematically. But what if you have an unformed elohite—an unfinished creature, only partially manifest, an evil and unevolved creature, a gremlin—”
“I think they’ve chosen to seek out a fresh, new Pluto rather than the same old Pluto that everyone else is exploring,” says Dhiyampati.
“. . . ah,” says Mr. Cullens.
“It’s not a broken machine?” says Mr. Brown.
Dhiyampati goes to the blackboard. He begin to sketch out the equations, with occasional references to the contract that the explorers signed. At several points, Mr. Cullens, Ellen, or Mr. Brown contribute their own thoughts to the matter; when they are done, the truth is staring out at them from the chalk.
“Well,” says Mr. Brown. “That’s not a broken machine, but damned if I can say what to do about it.”
“We can’t just abandon people to live out eternity in a random Pluto-like environment,” Mr. Brown points out.
“Not eternity,” says Ellen. “I mean, you can’t give someone an eternal afterlife without massive feedback.”
“Regardless,” Mr. Brown says, “They’re a huge investment for the company.”
“We could send anti-explorers after them,” Mr. Cullens proposes. “With nets.”
Ellen leans in beside Dhiyampati. She mutters, “He is good at the engineering side.”
“No nets,” says Dhiyampati.
“Well, we can’t just leave them there!” Mr. Brown expostulates.
“Have you considered damning them?” Dhiyampati asks.
“I’ve been damning them ever since they bloody vanished!”
“No,” says Dhiyampati. “I mean . . .”
“Oh,” says Mr. Brown.
Mr. Cullens frowns. “Isn’t that immoral? I thought you could only damn people for treason.”
Dhiyampati gestures broadly. “In the hellfire and brimstone sense, perhaps. But in the technical meaning?”
Mr. Brown thinks about that. “Technically,” he says, “A damnation is any—”
“They’re volunteers!” says Mr. Cullens.
“Let me finish,” snaps Mr. Brown.
“We’re supposed to protect them,” says Mr. Cullens. “It’s ridiculous. People come in and offer us their services and—”
“Let me finish!” says Mr. Brown.
“Ah,” says Dhiyampati.
Mr. Cullens shakes his head and goes silent.
“I suppose technically,” says Mr. Brown, “that a damnation is feeding people the consequences of any choice they didn’t really want the consequences for. Like when a modest person gets rewarded or a liar trapped in their own lies.”
“Here,” says Dhiyampati, “each of them has made the choice to do something that you did not agree that they could do—to explore the wrong Pluto, and send no data back. Surely enforcing the consequences of that choice upon them—that is to say, forcing them to pay their debt to you in the following life—is a valid damnation.”
“We still have access to their elohim,” concedes Mr. Brown. “We could do it.”
“But it’s ridiculous,” says Mr. Cullens. “They didn’t plan to run out on their obligations.”
“Oh dear,” says Dhiyampati. “What does planning have to do with choice?”